Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and enjoys working mainly with children and couples. She has a Masters of Divinity in Psychology and Counseling and bachelors degrees in both psychology and journalism. Jeannie started doing character therapy in March of 2009. Her Treatment Tuesdays feature assessments of fictional characters and plot feasibility while her Thursday Therapeutic Thoughts take a psychological topic and make it relevant to writers. She can be found at her blog, The Character Therapist, at

Psychology of Motivation Reaction Units

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue,
but that they are incomplete.

—Chimamanda Adichie

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This month marks a departure from my Character Stereotypes series. I hear the moans of disappointment. But it’s been a year, and it’s time to move on to other things.

The first thing up for analysis is Dwight Swain’s motivation reaction unit (MRU). I’d like to present the psychology of it and why it works so well.

If you don’t already know, two elements comprise an MRU:

1) Motivating Stimulus—occurs outside your character
2) Character Reaction—occurs within your character

The stimulus has to come before the reaction. A person can’t react to something that hasn’t happened yet. If your character screamed before opening the door, it would cause a lapse in logic. How did she know to scream before opening the door and seeing the villain? It’s a classic MRU problem—getting the stimulus and reaction out of order.

According to Swain, there are four elements of the Character Reaction, all of which have to stay in order as well:

1) Visceral Reaction—an automatic gut reaction your character has no control over
2) Thought—what your character thinks
3) Action—what your character does
4) Speech—what your character says

If you get the order wrong, the reader will scratch their heads in confusion. When you are slapped, the nerves in your cheek tingle (visceral), you “see” red (thoughts of anger), lunge toward your attacker (action), and yell (speech). When writing, you may choose to leave out an element of the Character Reaction, but the elements you do include have to be in order or the reader will know something is off.

The element that Swain did not include in the Character Reaction is emotion, perhaps because it should be a given. But in case you were wondering where it fits in, emotion essentially holds the MRU together.

Emotion comes before the visceral reaction. Let’s look at an example.

If I’m walking to my car in the parking lot and a shadow rushes toward me from the side, I will feel fear within a nanosecond. My visceral reaction might be nausea, my stomach knotting up, or blood rushing in my ears. Maybe a few tenths of a second after that, I experience an instinctive reaction, such as clawing for my mace spray or grabbing car keys to strike out with.

But this reaction is reflexive, not something I contemplated doing. Like a child putting a bleeding finger (due to a cut) into his mouth to suck, it’s inherent and inborn. You’ve probably heard this before, but the natural reflexes in times of danger are fight, flight, or freeze.

The truth is in situations like this the rational brain reacts so far behind the immediate emotion that the brain hasn’t really attempted a thought or tried to formulate words yet. In the example above, I wouldn’t fully understand what is happening to me until sometime later. I certainly wouldn't have reasoned out whether the shadow is a man intent on robbing me or an overzealous Brownie trying to sell me cookies.

Even more interesting is that when I actually do have the rational thought that the shadow is just a Brownie selling Girl Scout cookies, that won’t stop my emotions and physiological reactions already under way (the cold sweat, labored breathing, rapid heart rate). This is because the emotional brain is not only faster but more powerful than the rational brain, especially when threatened. The emotional brain takes over and simplifies everything to black-and-white choices instead of subtle shades of rational gray.

Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman found that when the amygdala (emotional brain) is active with blood and oxygen, there is less activation in the prefrontal cortex (rational brain). Our thinking power is disrupted and there are deficits in our problem solving because the blood and oxygen are present in the amygdala versus the prefrontal cortex. It is like temporarily losing ten to fifteen IQ points, which explains why the visceral reaction leads to inborn reflexes to protect us.

Hopefully you see how tightly interwoven the emotional brain is in the entire Character Reaction sequence of the MRU. Swain instinctively knew this, and psychology and neuroscience back him up.


The Character Thrapist